By Connor Lynch
QUEEN’S PARK — A controversial provincial bill on access to private trails was passed last month amidst confusion over what it means.
Bill 100, the Supporting Ontario’s Trails Act, was supposed to clarify the law governing trails on private land. But the fallout is that now some concerned property owners have shut down access to trails.
The president of the Grenville Snowmobile Association, Bernie Davy, said that unless the 15 landowners that have shut down in his area have their questions answered, the number of trails lost is going to cripple the entire Leeds & Grenville Snowmobile Association’s trail system. As of now there aren’t even enough trails open for members to get to their clubhouse, he said.
The real stickler for landowners are the easements, even though the bill states that easements are voluntary, Davy said. Easements allow for a right-of-way over someone else’s land.
The property owners “don’t trust the government,” Davy said. “They don’t trust what’s in (the bill). Until somebody gives them the clearance that everything’s OK, these trails are closed.”
MPP Steve Clark (PC – Leeds & Grenville) initially fought the bill, but he made a number of amendments that were approved and threw his support behind it. He worried that the bill didn’t make it clear that easements were voluntary, and successfully pushed for a clause which reads: “For greater certainty, the decision to grant an easement under subsection (3) is voluntary.”
“If you’re a property owner with a handshake agreement, the government can’t force an easement on you,” Clark told Farmers Forum.
He added that it’s going to be a busy summer trying to calm those fears around easements and get trails reopened.
Clark thinks the trail closures could have been avoided with rural consultation. He asked the government to take the bill off the table to allow for time to consult rural Ontario but the government declined to do so.
“I’m disappointed they didn’t do their due diligence.” He added that the only consultation by the province around the bill was in Toronto, back in the fall of 2013.
This isn’t just a problem in Leeds & Grenville. “It’s province-wide,” said president of the Ontario Landowners Association, Tom Black.
He said that trails shutdowns have occurred even into the Niagara regions.
“It’s the deceptive way the bill was brought forward in the first place,” said Black. “I think there’ll be a lot more shutdowns in the fall. This bill hasn’t done anything to alleviate their worries.”
Clark argues that “If those trails don’t get re-opened, it’ll be devastating.”
The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs estimates snowmobiling generates $2 billion annually in Ontario with the sales and service of snowmobiles and spending money in communities they pass through.